|After ten years of directing award winning international commercials, Mukunda wrote and directed his critically acclaimed debut feature film "Retribution." His follow up screenplay "Vehicle 19" was placed on Hollywood’s 2011 "Hitlist." The movie will be released in theaters in 2012 with action star Paul Walker in the lead. Mukunda was also hired recently by Paul Haggis' Hwy61 Films to write and direct the "Masekla" bio-pic.
Mukunda is represented in Los Angles by UTA but still lives and works from out of South Africa and India.
What was your childhood like growing up in South Africa?
Apartheid fell in my time. In 1984, I was 19 or 20, so that was a big thing in our culture. My parents were liberals so we were always aware of this injustice there in terms of that. I was too young to really know; by the time I started to know apartheid, it was already falling. That was the big thing about being South African and the injustice and the social upheaval that it caused. Apartheid was overthrown in pretty much a non-violent way. Mandela came out and said, “We forgive you.” Thus, in my earlier years, there was that shadow.
But the big thing for South Africans with any kind of ambition is that you wanted to get out of there. Most South Africans go to England and try to earn some pounds and explore the world. Somehow or the other, I wanted to go to America, though. I ended up living in Brooklyn for a couple of years in my 20s. I had a friend/contact there I stayed with. I bummed around with no money. A student’s life essence -- back packing around America.
When did decide or feel you wanted to work in film?
It took awhile. I was writing – it was always an interesting thing for me. I was conceptually quite strong even as a child. I did conceptual art for a long time. So the idea of a concept was always something I was playing with in my mind – headlines, bummer stickers or pithy sayings. Even as a kid I remember writing some little skits.
So while you were in Brooklyn…?
I was very much in an art phase -- a starving artist. It was not a very productive period of life. I look back and think, I should have been writing. (Laughs) That was a weird time. No idea of movies but there was some idea of getting into advertising.
Obviously, I ran out of money. You travel to all these great places, surf and have a good time; but eventually you realize you need a job. You can only crew on yacht or wait tables for so long. Mostly you get kind of tired. I went back to South Africa. I needed a job. I did some copy tests and got into an advertising agency as a junior writer. I got in and realized I could do this. I did ads for radio, TV, etc. I would be on a team with an art director. I was in advertising for a couple of years -- in my mid 20s. But I realized quite profoundly this was not quite what I wanted to do. That gnawed at me a long time. The world that was being presented to me as this is what you do with your life; so I started to inquire philosophically about my life and began studying the Bhagavad Gita. One thing lead to another. I resigned from my career, broke up with my girlfriend, left my apartment and I moved to India.
You gave everything up?
Yeah. I moved into an ashram – threw away my portfolio. I thought I would never go back to the “world” again. I lived the life of a monk in an ashram in India with the idea I was going to devote my life to spiritual enlightenment and what I’d seen before was not of any interest to me. I threw myself into it all with the fervor of a young monk. And it was fantastic. I grew a lot. I learned crucially how to focus. I was meditating -- and I still do by the way. But I learned to focus – to narrow down my energy to one thing. I get stuff done (writing) very quickly because of that. It was an incredible and I learned a lot about myself.
You get up very early in the morning, do meditation, mantra prayers and study scripture. We wrote papers and did menial service to learn humility. It was a very full and engaging life. I was there for about two years. Then I travelled around the world with a senior teacher as his assistant while he did lectures. But it slowly dawned on me that ashram life wasn’t going to be the best way to continue.
There are different phases of life in an ashram so one can step out of being a renounced monk and start working. You maintain your practice but I took a phase where get start working in the world again, through the eyes of what you have learnt spiritually. I still meditate for an hour and half every day – it’s a vow I took.
I realized I wanted to make movies. When I was making art I knew it was for a limited audience and one’s message often gets mistaken, especially with conceptual art. I realized film is a very powerful medium. It was a good place for me to go. Most people essentially “meditate” in front of the TV or films -- that’s when they are focused.
I went back to South Africa and advertising. In my mind, I knew I wanted to direct. I worked for Ogvily. I started writing TV commercials and knew I wanted to direct commercials, so I bought my own camera. If you want to be a director, you really have to direct – you have to be the one who goes, “I’m going to direct.” I wrote some scripts, shoot them myself and edited them on my Mac. I made a reel and took it around to the production houses. Then I got into directing TV commercials. One of my (spec) ads is still on my commercial reel.
What did you learn from directing commercials that helped you with not only your directing on features but also your writing?
I think two things helped here. I learned to deal with the fact the creative process is a business. People pay you; they call the shots. How to navigate that without being an asshole and still retaining some semblance of your vision for a project was an important balance to try and learn.
Then that experience on set also helps demystify the process of film making. It’s very nuts and bolts. There are so many people with incredible flair and style but if you shift one element of their vision, it all collapses. That’s not good, things get twisted and cut and added on all the time, you need to be able to roll with those punches. You need to be flexible and be able to problem solve if you’re going to survive.
Oh, I also learned to write short sentences. Helps with creating a “quick read.” You know how executives love that.
Also at that time, I decided to write a script called “The Great White Open,” a comic tragedy about guy who goes to India to try to find himself. I didn’t know anything about anything. I just started writing a movie.
Did you go buy any screenwriting books before you started? Take any classes?
I did read books and I read screenplays too. Robert McKee’s book “Story” was helpful – one thing in particular he said, which stuck was me, was to increase the obstacles thrown at your protagonist.
The scripts “American Beauty” and “The Royal Tenebaums” were both very much tonally where I wanted to take my movies. I wanted to approach heavy topics but with a lighter touch. I wrote the script but meanwhile I was shooting commercials. I sent it to one or two people for notes. One friend wrote back, “You should read more books.” (Laughs.)
There was a local guy who made “Hotel Rawanda,” and I asked him if he wanted to make this (my) movie and he said, “Yes, let’s do it.” Little did I know he was doing nothing. I wasn’t cheated but I was taken some slight advantage of. The golden rule, which I didn’t follow, is write another script. I waited. I held on to that one script for two or three years, and then his company fell apart. Thankfully, I was still shooting commercials.
I then wrote a second script about the second coming of Christ -- with Christ coming to New York. Not the right subject matter for a newbie, I know. It’s not commercial. I didn’t know. But I started to hone my craft. I never sent it to anyone.
Around this time I stumbled upon Done Deal and I started to learn you need an agent and a manager. I also learned how to write a logline and that I should write a commercial script. I hadn’t realized that yet; that you need to make it commercial if you want to get people to read your scripts. As an unknown element, if an executive reads a logline that they think they can’t sell, they’re not going to read it, they’re not going to get their readers to read it. I got a lot of advice from your site.
I next wrote a movie I could make. I wrote a two-hander called “Retribution.” This way my third script, so I decided to write something that I could get made. The story is “Misery” meets “Cape Fear”-- a cabin in the middle of nowhere, a retired judge writing his memoirs and a lost hiker. Two characters and a single location; but it was enough.
I took the script to local production companies and got them on board..
This was all on your own?
Yes. I pitched them and I told them we could make this movie for like $300,000 (US). We shot it on 35mm film, Anamorphic lenses -- the best gear -- because of my connections from making commercials. We shot for two weeks in a cabin on a burnt out landscape. It was fantastic. Two weeks on location and that was the first feature I ever shot. The one thing I was nervous about was my stamina. With commercials you just shoot two or three days (and you’re done), but I survived and it was great.
What was it like directing your own script?
Because of my life in the ashram, I’ve learned try and be detached when I need too. I’ve got a little perspective and I could see the script and cut when I needed to. I actually shot an alternative ending for “Retribution” because I realized half-way through production that the bad guy was such an asshole that he had to die and couldn’t survive in the end.
The main goal with this (first film) was to get me a chance to do a second feature. In spite of my commercials career, there’s resistance to a first time feature director. So, I wanted to get this “first time” out they way and thankfully it got solid reviews.
What came next?
I then wrote “Civilian.” It’s a big $55 million action-thriller. I was on Done Deal so I knew how to write loglines and all. It’s about this unsuspecting guy who stumbles upon some crucial espionage evidence. I wrote the script. Wrote a logline. Then I mass queried – I sent like 400 e-mails. There is a nice young lady on your site who gave out a list of reps. Off that I got approximately ten reads and three offers to rep me. I chose one manager and we went back and forth on notes and the script did get better. But then it got to the point where we needed to get an agent to read it to then take it out. While all this was going on I wrote “Vehicle 19.” It was like “Civilian” but knocked down to about $10 million (for a budget). I decided two key things. One, I was going to shoot it in South Africa. And two, I wanted an American lead who comes to South Africa. This way I could get the SA rebates. The other thing I liked was the idea of a foreigner coming to the streets of Johannesburg and being a fish out of water. Also, having an American in the film will help finance the movie for us. And I decided to keep all the action in a car. “Retribution” but for Hollywood. I realized with “Retribution” that no one in Hollywood wanted it. There was no name there. I’d come to recognize the value of a name in your movie. You need a name.
So for those not familiar with it, “Vehicle 19” is action-thriller about a paroled convict who visits his ex-wife at the US embassy in South Africa, but picks up the wrong rental car, which leads to a series of close shaves. How long did it take you to write? What did it take to get it set up
It took a couple of months. I had parted ways with my first manager. I said, “it’s not working.” Then I got another manger. I knew him (Geoff) from your forums. He read it and flipped for it. The script got on the 2010 HitList. It got some heat. It went wide -- into about 45 places. It was incredible. Fast and quick. Various people wanted it. It went out with me attached to direct. Some didn’t want me attached and others did. Geoff and I spoke, and we decided to go with people that wanted me attached as director – it was a risk. There is more money involved in selling it straight out.
So we got it to Peter Safarn who had just done “Buried” with Ryan Reynolds and my script was very close to that. It all came together pretty quickly. We got Paul Walker; he was just coming off “Fast Five,” which was a big hit, so we had the whole thing fall into place and we were shooting within six months.
Was there much of an issue from American companies about shooting in South Africa? And what was the shoot like ultimately?
Most people liked the setting for South Africa. There was some talk early on about shooting it somewhere else with another manager at one point, but most loved the idea of a foreigner who is on parole, jumping parole and coming to see his wife in a dangerous foreign country and he can’t get into trouble, but he does.
We got K5 involved so they pre-sold the movie before it was even shot. It was fantastic. I realized this was a big deal.
We had seven cars. One was cut off on the left. One off the right. One on the back. The camera never left the car. We shot for six weeks. It was a terrible shoot. It was cold. And we were chasing the car around. It was just the nature of the production. Paul was great -- a pro. He’s on screen for 90 minutes. When we finished, I got sick., I thought I’m not doing this anymore. This is not worth it. I’m use to a very pleasant, peaceful existence. But I survived obviously (laughs) and I’m shooting again in February.
You got this one done. All the post in South Africa. And once you recovered, where did you go from there?
After a holiday, I immediately started writing another script. I also got an assignment. When I was in Cannes, someone had heard of “Vehicle 19” and they wanted me to rewrite on another movie. Someone had put me in touch with them. They had quite a big director drop out of their project, so they wanted me to have a look. I did a rewrite on that and also became attached as the director. It’s still in play.
I also wrote a script called “Kalahari.” It’s “The Grey” but with lions. It was the same thing. Under $20 million in South Africa. It’s a manageable way to make a movie. Get the rebate and get a big name.
Then I wrote a movie called “Drop.” It’s more action than thriller. It’s slightly bigger because I have a track record now. That’s why I’m in LA now meeting with actors .
Did you do much research for this?
Some but my main thing with research is if the average person believes it, that’s the truth.
I know you got repped by UTA when you were shooting “Vehicle 19.” What was it like meeting an agent on set?
I was busy directing on set, of course. UTA reps Paul Walker, so they knew about me. Charlie (Ferraro) likes to travel, come on set and see what’s going on with a project. He is good, because he pursues people. He did that. I asked him, would he be able to get me some nice work? That was my criteria. Charlie went back to America and he sent me some scripts to look at. I was very impressed. I responded to two of them. I’m very happy with him.
Along with the above what was it like directing your own script with bigger names involved? What changes were asked for by anyone?
Everyone liked the script form the beginning so it remained largely untouched. One thing that did became clear to me was how some things that read well in a screenplay don’t always play so well on screen and how some things that read kinda dull can really pop on screen.
But as screenwriters we don’t need to worry about the popping on screen part, we should just work on the “popping on the page” part. How it translates on screen, well that’s what they pay a director for. We need to work in the medium we have, creating the world for the director to play in. So even if you say, “John’s face drops – just like that his world shattered in an instant…” it creates a world. Can the actor do that just by his expression, does the director need to do something else here? Not really your problem, just try and make it work on the page. We get what is being said, we get the story part. So we should free ourselves up when we can. There are so many restrictions later down the road, talent issues, producer issues, marketing issues, final cut issues…so many, but nothing is as ever free as when it’s just you and the keyboard. Go have some fun.
This past August (2012), you were hired by Olympus Pictures and Hwy61 Films to write and direct the untitled Selema "Sal" Masekela bio. After having done two thrillers, this seems like a change of pace especially considering how often people are pigeon holed. How did this opportunity come up?
Charlie got me in the room with them. I had this far out take on the material… how to really treat it in a very atmospheric way -- some other treatment that was in a sense a departure from a traditional way this stuff is normally done. This is not my genre. I thought the way I would do this is X. It’s a pretty risky way but I didn’t mind risking it.
I went in with the idea that I’m just going to tell it like I think it should be and I pitched it to Michael Nozik and Leslie Urdang. Somehow they liked the take and we did a deal. They’re very progressive group of people there; they have Oscar wins under their belts, they make bold movies… it’s really nice to work with people like that.
And Olympus Pictures is one of these production companies which get these kind of movies made. Their previous film was “Rabbit Hole” with Nicole Kidman, which she got an Oscar nomination for. They are very solid.
I’ve had a fantastic time writing it. When you feel they trust you and they want you to go for it, it really frees you up. I’m really happy with what I have so far.
The main thing for me was to get the tone of it. They say grasp the subject and the words will follow. Thankfully I didn’t have to do a treatment. I write quickly. I had one other call with Leslie and I said this is where I’m going and she dug it. Because I write quickly they can see where I’m going.
I’m just about done now. I’m polishing it up.
Have your reps or producers here pushed you to move to Los Angeles? And/or do you feel pressure to be out here? Why or why not?
I’m in LA a few times year. But I won’t move here. I live in a small sea side village in Cape Town, South Africa. My wife, my home and my kid’s schools are all there. The kids play in the rock pools all day -- we have no TV. We have quality of life there and few things that can trump that in my mind. I was meeting with a producer on another job and he mentioned their TV series… they wanted me to write on. I said no thanks, he asked “Why? Too much work”? I laughed. But it’s true, for me, my work doesn’t define me. It’s one aspect of my life that I try do as well as I can, but that’s it, it’s not something I want dominating or consuming my existence. After all, these are just stories we make up so people can go and kill of a little boredom every now and again, nothing really that important in the bigger scheme of things.
Also I have good reps, they’re here in LA… they know what is going down and they keep me in the loop when needed.
Someone once said the desk was a terrible place from which to view the world, sometimes I feel that way about LA, like it may not always be the best place from which to write fresh stories. Maybe. Each to his own really.
What’s a typical writing day like for you then?
I write in the morning when I’m fresh. Couple of hours and then maybe some tinkering in the afternoon on other projects that I’ve already done a draft on. I don’t work on heavy stuff after lunch and never at night. My mind gets too busy and I sleep restlessly then, which then ruins my next morning. But I do try and write when I’m on a project, whether I’m inspired or not. I’m quite disciplined like that, well, I try and be. (Laughs.)
Do you outline your stories or write treatments first before staring a script?
Rough outline sure: How does it end? What’s the twist? The big reversal half way through? What the extra layer I can add to this? As I work more, I start to get the basic structure done before I start on page.
And where do you like to work? An office? Coffee shop?
I like to write alone with ear plugs in the morning. I find a clear hour in the morning is worth like two and half hours in the afternoon. I write for two hours in the morning. Maybe tinker a little in the afternoon. If there is a heavy deadline, I’ll write a little more in the afternoon. I write in spite or not. I find that helps tremendously. You can’t wait for inspiration. I write quickly once I know what I’m doing. I don’t second guess too much.
I do some messy, untidy first draft. I know how it ends and what the twists are. I make sure I know one or two things are in there for the second act. Your meat is the second act. Then you’ve got something. I’m good to go. Everyone likes the first act. It’s easy to set up.
I’m not a big polisher or rewriter. It’s a first draft and a polish. Then I’ll send it out to Charlie. If there is not one consistent note back from people, I don’t just jump at a rewrite. I’m not attached to my work but there needs to be a consistent note before I rewrite it.
For writers living outside of Los Angeles/Hollywood and even the U.S., what advice would you give? Also, what advice in general for aspiring writers?
It’s very competitive out here (Los Angeles). You have to keep working. It takes a long time to get projects going. You can’t wait.
You also definitely need an agent. Having a foreign voice is not a bad thing. People like something different. Just the fact I’m South African helps. But you need someone on the ground here working the deals. And to get an agent or manager you need to write a commercial script. In my experience, don’t be writing dark dramas or historical movies. I think you can but it’s more difficult. Don’t make it more difficult.
I get some love from my reps because I write movies that they can sell and movies that can be made. I’m sure it’d take longer for them to return my calls if I was starting to do stuff they would have difficulty selling. Don’t make it more difficult my writing these weird movies. Save it for when you can.
I want to eventually get to the point where I have enough power to where my name means something, I can get a solid actor and I write meaningful movies. Movies that mean something to me personally and have a greater value to humanity.
Next, be nice. Many times you want to tell someone you don’t agree with their notes. But rather, just suck it up and do the notes particularly if you are new. If you don’t have a rep you need a decent logline. Does this logline work? Even if it’s a great script, if your only way to get it to them to read is via a query, you need a great logline. Don’t make it more difficult for yourself.
Also, I think people take it all too seriously. We’re just writing entertainment. Don’t give up your day job. The odds are stacked against you. The nice thing about writing is you can write anywhere. If you get traction for your script then you can spend a little more time on it. But don’t risk your family on it.
Keep in mind, writers create product – you are your own commodity. That’s very powerful. Producers and directors have to buy product. They have to wait. But writers can create product out of nothing. It’s very valuable. Without scripts, no one cares. Where is the script? If it’s not great, then “next.”
And make your scripts commercial. That’s the best chance you’ve got. Either that or be an exceptionally great writer. Also, read Done Deal. It really helps, particularly if you are new.